“Who is this moron, flying around?”: How we fell out of love with space travel

Even after the moon landing, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin found themselves quickly forgotten
September 2, 2020

On 30th May, five days after the death of George Floyd, two astronauts were sent to the International Space Station in a mission named “Launch America.” The launch marked the first time since 2011 that astronauts had departed American soil for the International Space Station.

“A rat done bit my sister Nell,” my partner said aloud, while reading a BBC headline about this supposedly historic event. “And Whitey’s on the moon.”

He was quoting a 1970 spoken word poem by the African-American poet and jazz singer Gil Scott-Heron. “Whitey on the Moon” plays like a macabre nursery rhyme, growing more disturbing with each line, and more true. “Her face and arms began to swell (and Whitey’s on the moon) / I can’t pay no doctor bill (but Whitey’s on the moon) / Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still…”

The Space Race of the 1960s shared a timeline with the US’s fight for racial equality—even then, there was criticism over what “race” Americans should be paying attention to. Who benefited from sending “Whitey” to the moon? Who benefits from sending two more white astronauts to the International Space Station, now? “Space travel has inspired Americans, but it has never united them” wrote Marina Koren recently in the Atlantic. “Not in the late ’60s, and certainly not in the present moment.” Koren is right to say it has never united Americans, but funnily enough, it hasn’t always interested them either.

In 1969, an estimated 123m Americans watched the moon landings, some 61 per cent of the population. Internationally, the event was just as captivating. Paris had to rely on extra generators to keep so many televisions firing on throughout the night; West Germany reported a sharp drop in crime while the moonwalk was airing. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins went on a world tour, drawing millions of revellers.

But before long, the vast majority of Americans were unable to remember Neil Armstrong’s name. “Whatever Happened to Neil Whosis?” asked the Chicago Tribune in 1974, in an article that revealed that most Americans could not remember the astronaut’s name. In his 2014 No Requiem for Space Travel, history professor Matthew Tribbe charts this instant disenchantment: “Any explanation for why Apollo faded so quickly from the national consciousness needs to start with the fact that Americans were never as keen on the moon programme as current public memory and myth suggest. Poll after poll in the years leading up to Apollo revealed a public that was sceptical of the amount of money being spent on the moon race, the rush to complete the task before 1970, and the misplaced priorities it represented.”

The press at the time seemed to imply that Armstrong and his colleagues had gone missing, or had become hermits. In fact, the astronauts were just as baffled. “I had hoped that the impact would be more far-reaching than it has been,” Armstrong said on the first year anniversary. “I’m certainly a little disappointed,” said Aldrin, who by 1977 was working at a Cadillac dealership in Beverly Hills (where, according to his own book, he failed to sell a single car). Just three years after Apollo 11, after an array of problematic, dangerous and badly publicised missions, Nasa cancelled Apollos 18, 19 and 20 due to budget cuts and lack of public interest.

There is no single explanation for the sharp decline in astronaut interest that carried on throughout the 1970s.  Watergate and the Vietnam War cast a shadow over the optimism of the 1960s. But also  important was the evolution in the longstanding cultural fascination with loners, who came to be viewed with a certain pity. For what was more loner-like than floating around for months at a time in space?

In popular music, astronauts became the ultimate symbol of loneliness. From Elton John’s mournful declarations that he’s “not the man they think I am at home” to David Bowie’s Major Tom, there was a sense that the astronaut’s fate was both a symptom of and metaphor for a world that was moving too fast and leaving too many behind. Mad Men’s Don Draper may have summed it up best when dismissing a space-themed advertising poster. “Who is this moron, flying around space?” he growls at his creatives. “He pees his pants.”

While science fiction remains robustly popular today—even now, children rapturously watch Star Wars—it’s difficult to imagine what kind of “space news” would be big enough to grab our stretched and overstimulated attentions. Would we literally need confirmation of alien life to care again? My ennui runs deep. I did not watch the online footage of Launch America. I cannot name a single modern astronaut. Perhaps in today’s world, we are all just too hard to dazzle.